The First Line Game

James Scott Bell

A number of my novelist friends share an e-mail loop, and from time to time we put up the first lines of our WIPs. It’s always fun to strut our stuff and see what others are doing.
First lines can also be an idea generator. Dean Koontz, in his book How to Write Best Selling Fiction (1981), told how he used to do this all the time, in order to find material. One day he wrote this:
“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.
He stared at it awhile, then decided Roy was fourteen and talking to a younger boy. And from that one line he developed what became The Voice of the Night.
Joseph Heller wrote this line, without knowing anything else: In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. This became the genesis of his massive satirical novel, Something Happened. (The line was moved further in by Heller once the book was finished, but it was the line itself that suggested the larger work).
I was at Bouchercon last week, in a good place because I had just submitted my manuscript to my editor. I am about to begin another novel, so sitting in the hotel lobby one afternoon, I was “in between.” I took out my notebook and wrote this line:
He had loved her since she was six years old.
Now, that is not my usual style, and it has the word had in it, which I would normally try to eschew. But that’s what I wrote. Then I kept on writing, to find out what the scene was about. When I got to the end of the page I had made two startling discoveries, both of which I’ll keep to myself as I may actually want to write this thing!
It is very cool to find ideas this way. Do you ever do that?
Okay, if you’re a writer, do you want to share the first line of your WIP?
If not, what is a favorite first line from a recent book you read? 

31 thoughts on “The First Line Game

  1. It is fun to jot a random line that becomes the genesis of a new story. That’s happened to me a few times. You write it down and then you suddenly get that “Ah ha! This could lead to something!” moment. ๐Ÿ˜Ž

  2. I sometimes go through shelves in the library or bookstore and read first lines of books. Mainly for ideas, but often I end up reading a book based on that first line.

    The first line of my WIP:

    The car ahead of him vanished.

  3. This is a great idea and I know many authors who do this on twitter using #storystarters. I also do something like this with a group of authors called Six Sentence Sunday, where we share six sentences from anything we’ve written whether published or a WIP. We use #sixsentence to share this on Twitter and the website is here: while we obviously can’t use the excerpts of someone else, it can help to generate ideas.

  4. Fun post, Jim. One of my favorite things to do is go to the local B&N, stand at the new release table and read the first line of the latest offerings. I’m always amazed at how many have no grab, for me at least. But there’s always that one that reaches out and tempts me to read on.

    Here’s the first line of my WIP: I laid flat on my belly beside the 5000-year-old Assyrian settlement wall and watched the smuggler through my night vision binoculars.

  5. Here’s the first line from my WIP (with much emphasis on the P):

    Cu-thump. Cu-thump. The ever present sound of the train wound its way through her ears and to her brain.”

  6. First line of my short story:
    Nicodarius Burnham shouldered through his men, toward whatever they’d surrounded.

    I’m not sure it’s going to stay.

    One thing that I’ve found is that it helps to start every chapter, introduce every character, with the same care you’d use to start a novel. At least, that’s what I’m working on.

  7. I LOVE first lines! Two of the five novels I’ve written were born from a random first line that wouldn’t get out of my head.

    Sometimes, when I’m bored or stuck, I’ll just write first line after first line. I have a whole document filled with them.

  8. Excellent post!

    First lines sometimes come to me out of nowhere and spark the rest of the story. The best ones remain as the first line even after several drafts.

    Here is one such line from an SF short story I wrote earlier this year:

    When they told me waking up from cryo-sleep was the worst kind of pain, I knew none of them had ever lost a child.

  9. I love reading everyone’s first lines. Most of the time my first lines just pop into my head and they don’t change much when I revise.

    The first line is my WIP is “I knew it wasn’t going to be a good day when the Chief of Police keeled over in my office.”

  10. First lines like this is often what inspires me as well – I got 13 pages of them in my idea file (more or less developed into paragraphs). In my current WIP the first line is “Jack is my son of a bitch f***” (figured I should censor that…). And I swear, I don’t curse often. This sentence just nagged me for years until I finally put it in a story, and the story turned into a novel about romance and finding one’s inner strength and daring to say “no”.

  11. I love first lines and sometimes second lines. In Deanna Raybourn’s novel, Silent in the Grave, the first and second line sucked me in big time.

    “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.”

    First lines are wonderful fun and sometimes head-banging agony.

  12. I’m the same way, at the outset of writing a book, frequently I only know the first line.

    Here’s my latest:

    Wind rushed in the open windows as we took the corner at sixty miles an hour. Summer had her head out, eyes closed, wearing an expression of total abandon and utter bliss. In the back, Nadine’s knuckles were white against the smooth leather seats.

    And my all time favorite opening line is from Mystic River:

    When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them.

  13. Great post! Sometimes it’s just a short, one-line sentence that gets my mind whirring enough to write a full novel.

    First line of my current WIP: “The role of assassin was not an easy one to play. Necessary, but not easy.”

  14. JSB – another great post.

    From my current WIP and revision struggle.
    “Drake’s first glance told him the blonde-haired baby was dying.”

    Line does not go to the heart of the story but establishes aspect of character and setting (Drake’s responsibilities and world). Still unsure if this is effective start point.

  15. Great post. Almost everything I have written has started with a “first line” that led to a first scene that I hope leaves the reader wondering who these people are and what is going on.

    Current WIP first line….. I found them a year after your death.

  16. First line of my WIP:
    “The closest person I have ever had to a mother lies dying.”

    I usualy find a line springs it to my head and becomes the catalyst for a scene if not a whole book!

  17. If you can get a good first line, you can really get going, because often the hardest part is just getting started.

    Current WIP start:
    You never really know how much your truck needs a wash or how sensitive your sunburned face is until someone slams them into each other.

  18. From my current WIP:
    “When he was a mercenary, Gabriel Stewart thought he understood what death was until the day it happened to him.”

    From my YA – IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS – coming out Apr 2011:
    “I sleep with the dead.”

    From my book NO ONE LEFT TO TELL:
    “On the trail of money, Mickey Blair sniffed out opportunity like most men chased skirts–one led to the other, but cash never got a headache.”

  19. First line of my actual week/day:

    “Uhn…ugh….OW! … what the? Oh…work….yeah.”

    First line of my WIP:

    Sammy Davis Jr. was no relation to the famous performer from the last century, nor to any other famous person for that matter.

    the latter is obviously done much later in the day, when I am fully respondent

  20. Jim, here’s the first line from my WIP. Compared to my other opening lines, it’s a little long, but I think it works:

    I gazed out the window of my hotel room at the black ocean shimmering in the moonlight and thought about the bloody mess I’d left back in Houston.

  21. What fun! The first line of my WIP:

    “Darkness was just giving way to a foggy January morning when Roger Coffey noticed the headlights in his rear-view mirror.”

    On a related note, American Book Review has a list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels. It’s an interesting list. You won’t agree with everything but there are some great first lines! Sure to get the brain thinking.

  22. Great idea. It is fun reading everyone else’s first lines.

    Here is the first line from my last book:

    I wasn’t surprised when the Plexiglas partitions shot up out of the floor and locked me in front of this window.


  23. How interesting that so many of these first lines are in first person.

    When I began my own WIP, I started out writing it partially in first person too. I wonder how common this experience is.

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